CityVoter Bets on TV Partners for Review Site

With the probable exception of Yelp, standalone review sites haven’t figured out a way to make money. In the past year, Insider Pages was sold off to Citysearch, and Judy’s Book, famously, changed its model to coupons.

So why would Josh Walker, Forrester’s former head of consumer research, dive into the game with both feet? Walker’s CityVoter, which raised an initial round of $1.1 million from two Boston-area funders, has been in operation since 2005, and now has 25 employees.

I talked with Walker last week about where he’s going with this. During our conversation, Walker made it clear that he’s not interested in reliving the past.

The “best of” approach, pioneered by city magazines, differentiates the site from the broader Yellow Pages approach of the others (although they also have “best of” lists). Walker believes it will give the site a breadth of reviews, rather than the typical focus on restaurants, bars and entertainment. “Are there enough passionate people to ‘Yelp’ about florists and autos shops?” he asks.

Walker’s TV station-centric model is geared on viral growth from the stations promotional efforts, which will get users to go to their Web sites to “vote” on favorite businesses. Stations are expected to provide between 100 and 300 spots during launch periods.

Secondarily, Walker expects the site to pick up traction from small-business advertisers, which will co-promote themselves and the site by displaying CityVoter signs and handing out free CityVoter-branded business cards.

“Local TV stations need a way to engage local businesses,” he says. “It is the first time we give local TV stations a reason to call the salon.” Walker acknowledges, however, that TV stations may have been cultural misfit with online services in the past, focused on back-slapping auto dealers that accounted for about a third of all sales – or more.

But he believes that the TV station business, recently very depressed, is now interested in pursuing a new climate, with younger, hungrier salespeople. And lower commissions too. All these are necessary components for Web sales. “They’re needing to ramp down from $250k accounts to $50k accounts,” he says.

The key, Walker believes, is that the site will make the small business feel special and enfranchised, rather than just being an advertiser. Along these lines, special features include the various “best of” contests, and collateral such as e-coupons and inclusion in e-newsletters, and integration with YouTube videos.

The site has also put together a package for small-business owners to get them up and going. Partners for the package include VistaPrint for printing, Constant Contact for e-mail and VoiceStar for call tracking.

At this point, the lineup of stations, which get local exclusivity, is getting real. CityVoter now has nine stations, 120,000 registered users and 410,000 votes. It is expecting to launch 25 more stations before the year is out. More important, CityVoter has developed relationships with key station groups – rather than landing deals one station at a time.

Currently, the site has won commitments from Fox to launch 18 stations, Hearst-Argyle to launch 14 stations, McGraw-Hill to launch four stations; CBS to launch two stations, and one station each from Washington Post-Newsweek and Gannett.

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